Sunday, July 29, 2012

Summer of 1982: AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and NIGHT SHIFT (July 30, 1982)

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN was perhaps 1982's stealthiest blockbuster.  It opened with little fanfare on July 30 and didn't have its biggest week until September.  It remained in the top five until December, only taking the top spot twice, but it made just under $130 million to became the third highest-grossing film of the year.  The film, directed by Taylor Hackford (THE IDOLMAKER) and written by Douglas Day Stewart (THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE, THE BLUE LAGOON), is predictable and manipulative (especially the storybook finale), but it's got some strong performances and for the most part, it's aged well.  Aimless, troubled, and angry Zack Mayo (Richard Gere), still not over his mother's suicide when he was child, joins the Navy as a way out of his dead-end life with his drunk father (Robert Loggia), whose idea of bonding is getting a prostitute for the two of them to share.  He befriends fellow recruits Sid Worley (David Keith) and Casey Seeger (Lisa Eilbacher), clashes with drill sergeant Foley (Louis Gossett, Jr), and falls in love with local factory worker Paula Pokrifki (Debra Winger) who, along with her best friend Lynette (Lisa Blount) dream of finding a Navy man to whisk them away from their dead-end jobs so they can see the world.   Gere is very good as the irresponsible Mayo (aka "Mayo-naise," aka "Mayo the Wop"), who finally learns how to be a man once he's away from his loser father (fourth-billed Loggia exits the film before the opening credits, and spends most of his screen time scratching his balls), and it's he and Winger's considerable onscreen chemistry that made this the massive hit that it became.  That, and the hugely popular Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes theme song "Up Where We Belong." 

The song got an Oscar, and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar went to Gossett, who's fine in the role, but there's really nothing exceptional in his performance (and the Oscar curse led him straight to 1983's ill-advised JAWS 3-D).  Of course, this was before R. Lee Ermey rewrote the book on cinematic drill sergeants five years later in FULL METAL JACKET (some of Ermey's dialogue seems to have been taken from here, as Gossett mentions "steers & queers," and threatens to gouge out Sid's eyes and "skullfuck" him).  Winger first gained notice in 1980's URBAN COWBOY and helped provide the voice of E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, and received the first of her three Oscar nominations here, and this film was big enough for her that it managed to get her top billing over established stars Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson in the next year's TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.  Winger, who famously clashed with MacLaine and quickly earned a reputation for being "difficult," has never been as vulnerable and appealing as she is here.  Gere, coming off of AMERICAN GIGOLO, has been in a lot of big movies but has never really gotten the respect he's deserved as an actor.  Watching the film again after many years, I was surprised at how good Gere is in this--not just in his interaction with Winger, Keith, or Gossett (the boot camp scenes are beyond formulaic), but most impressively in the scene where Mayo sacrifices his chance at the obstacle course record to help Seeger over the wall.  It's audience manipulation at its most blatant, but Gere and the charming Eilbacher (why was she never a bigger star?) sell the hell out of it.  But was it necessary for Mayo and Foley to settle their differences with a martial-arts match-up?

Ron Howard previously directed and starred in 1977's GRAND THEFT AUTO for Roger Corman, but NIGHT SHIFT was his first theatrical feature as a director since leaving HAPPY DAYS to focus on a career behind the camera.  Working from a script by regular collaborators Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, Howard brought along his TV co-star Henry Winkler and created one of the most immensely likable comedies of the year.  It would probably rank as a comedy classic if it didn't lose momentum in the last third and drag on a bit longer than necessary.  Winkler stars as Chuck Lumley, a mild-mannered night shift attendant at the NYC morgue, but from the very moment he's introduced, the film belongs to a debuting Michael Keaton in a star-making performance as his new assistant, fast-talking "idea man" Bill "Billy Blaze" Blazejowski. 

With the help of Chuck's prostitute neighbor Belinda (Shelley Long), Chuck and Bill begin running a profitable prostitution ring out of the morgue.  Winkler and Keaton are a great team, and after several years of doing stand-up and assorted TV roles, Keaton immediately established himself as a major new comedic talent, and in the coming years, would prove to be just as adept in serious roles as well.  Long was a few months away from starring in CHEERS, and the film also features appearances by Bobby DiCicco (who gets the immortal line "Oh, that Barney Rubble...what an actor!"), Richard Belzer, Joe Spinell, Nita Talbot, an ass-baring Michael Pataki, Vincent Schiavelli, Cassandra Gava (the witch in CONAN THE BARBARIAN), a young Shannen Doherty as a girl scout, and Kevin Costner as "Frat Guy #1" (he's at the party in the morgue, behind Keaton as he's balancing a beer bottle on his forehead), in addition to the inevitable Clint Howard. 

The soundtrack features songs written by Carole Bayer Sager and Burt Bacharach, including the title track by Quarterflash (still riding high on "Harden My Heart"), Al Jarreau's "Girls Know How," and Rod Stewart's version of "That's What Friends Are For," which became a chart-topping charity single for Dionne Warwick and Friends (Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder) in 1985.  Other songs on the soundtrack include Van Halen's cover of "You Really Got Me,"  Talk Talk's "Talk Talk," and two songs by Riggs, a band that Warner Bros. got on the HEAVY METAL soundtrack as well, and were thoroughly unsuccessful at convincing the world to give a shit.

Also in theaters this weekend was the Chuck Norris thriller FORCED VENGEANCE.  Norris was slowly building a name for himself with drive-in hits like BREAKER! BREAKER! (1977), GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK (1978),  A FORCE OF ONE (1979), and THE OCTAGON (1980).  AN EYE FOR AN EYE (1981) moved him closer to mainstream action and SILENT RAGE (1982) mixed Norris action into a sci-fi/horror story.  Four months after SILENT RAGE hit theaters, Norris was in theaters again with FORCED VENGEANCE, which finds him in more familiar surroundings as a casino security guard taking on the crime syndicate of Hong Kong.  The relentlessly busy Norris next did LONE WOLF MCQUADE (1983) and then had his first bona fide box office smash with MISSING IN ACTION (1984).   FORCED VENGEANCE was directed by Clint Eastwood protege James Fargo, who served as an assistant director on several Eastwood films throughout the '70s before the star let him direct THE ENFORCER (1976) and EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978).  Fargo left the Eastwood stock company in 1978, doing the box-office bombs CARAVANS (1978) and GAME FOR VULTURES (1979).  FORCED VENGEANCE grossed $6.5 million and was the closest thing Fargo had to a hit without Eastwood, and by 1984, he was directing Pia Zadora in VOYAGE OF THE ROCK ALIENS before settling into a TV career (directing episodes of THE A-TEAM, SCARECROW AND MRS. KING, and HUNTER), with occasional B-movie assignments.  After directing a low-budget 1998 kids movie called SECOND CHANCES,  Fargo went MIA but finally emerged from obscurity after 13 years with BORN TO RIDE (2011), a straight-to-DVD SONS OF ANARCHY knockoff, with Casper van Dien and Patrick Muldoon reuniting from STARSHIP TROOPERS.

TEX was the first of a string of S.E. Hinton adaptations to hit screens from 1982 to 1985.  Directed by Tim Hunter, who went on to make RIVER'S EDGE (1987), TEX stars Matt Dillon and Jim Metzler as two teenage brothers whose father (Bill McKinney) abandons them after their mother dies.  It's a typical Hinton coming-of-age drama, with younger brother Tex (Dillon) forced to grow up fast and big brother Mason (Metzler) shouldering the responsibility of raising his little brother.  The fine supporting cast includes the great Ben Johnson, Meg Tilly, and a young Emilio Estevez as a friend of Tex's.  Dillon and Estevez would become almost the de facto faces of S.E. Hinton on the big screen, starring with an army of young, promising talent (Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, and others) in Francis Ford Coppola's THE OUTSIDERS (1983) and Dillon would also star in Coppola's second Hinton adaptation, RUMBLE FISH, later in 1983.  Estevez wrote and starred in 1985's THAT WAS THEN...THIS IS NOW, leaving 1988's Taming the Star Runner the only one of Hinton's young-adult novels that hasn't been made into a film involving either Matt Dillon or Emilio Estevez.

TOP TEN FILMS FOR THE WEEKEND OF JULY 30, 1982 (from www.boxofficemojo.com)

10. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (re-release)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

In Theaters/On VOD: KLOWN (2010)

(Denmark - 2010; 2012 US release)

Directed by Mikkel Norgaard.  Written by Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam.  Cast: Frank Hvam, Casper Christensen, Marcuz Jess Petersen, Mia Lhyne, Iben Hjejle, Lars Hjortshoj. (R, 91 mins)

Produced by Lars von Trier's Zentropa Entertainment, KLOWN (released in its native Denmark in 2010 as KLOVN: THE MOVIE) is a feature-film spinoff of the hugely popular Danish TV comedy series KLOVN, which ran for six seasons from 2005 to 2009.  Considered to be a sort-of Danish equivalent to CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, KLOWN certainly owes Larry David a huge debt in terms of its structure, its squirm and discomfort factor and its use of Danish celebrities popping up to offend, or be offended by, the well-meaning but socially hapless Frank (Frank Hvam), who gets himself into similar CURB-style situations, only with more raunch and body fluids.  KLOWN is very often screamingly funny, provided you like the kind of humor that has something to offend everyone.  Unlike CURB, a lot of the gags tend to lean toward the shocking and disgusting, but there's a wit, a sophistication, and a surprising heart to it that lifts it above the level of the usual American-made grossout comedies of several years ago.

Frank Hvam as Frank
Frank finds out his girlfriend Mia (Mia Lhyne) is pregnant.  She expresses concern that Frank isn't ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood.  To prove her wrong, Frank impulsively takes Mia's shy, awkward, 12-year-old nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) on a canoeing trip with his horndog, overgrown-adolescent best buddy Casper (Casper Christensen).  Casper isn't happy about Bo potentially interfering with his "Tour de Pussy," but it doesn't stop him from sleeping with every woman possible.  Misunderstandings and bad decisions abound, but over the trip, both Frank and Casper bond with the boy and, in their own unique ways, grow up.  Sort of.

Casper Christensen, Hvam, and Marcuz Jess Petersen in a KLOWN publicity shot

Sure, that sounds all warm and fuzzy, but KLOWN doesn't shy away from anything along the way.  The script, by Christensen and Hvam, tries but doesn't quite achieve the intricate construction and multiple converging storylines that are Larry David's trademark, but the situations in which Frank frequently finds himself will delight any fan of David's style of humor.  And for American audiences, the Danish celebrities who appear throughout will likely not register (I had to do some Wikipedia searches after watching).  But whether Frank is getting kicked out of a book club meeting by Grammy-winning "Alley Cat" composer Bent Fabric, accidentally ejaculating into Mia's mother's face, being cajoled by Casper into an impromptu threesome, being denied entry into a posh brothel because he's "too ugly," or failing miserably in his attempts to replicate Casper's magnetic charm ("man-flirting"), the comedic elements still speak loud and clear.

I've never seen the TV series KLOVN, but online reviews from Danish fans seem to indicate that the film is a worthy big-screen follow-up.  In addition to the Danish-centric elements, the writers and director Mikkel Norgaard dive into the film already expecting its Danish audience to be up to speed with the characters and their histories from the TV show's six-season run.  That said, the film is still hysterically funny and while that background info would be nice, it's not completely necessary to have it in order to enjoy KLOWN.  Von Trier fans will probably recognize THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS' Jorgan Leth in a brief bit as himself (dispensing terrible advice to Frank), and followers of Danish politics will spot former Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen.  Casper's wife is played by Iben Hjejle, best known to American audiences as John Cusack's girlfriend in HIGH FIDELITY (2000).  But excepting any Americans who lived in Scandinavia over the last decade, the appearances of Fabric, Danish pop star Medina, TV host Mads Brugger, novelist Ib Michael, and former TV executive Mikael Bertelsen will likely be lost on all but the most devout American students of Danish pop culture.  But even without the full effect of being able to put these cameos and other incidental elements into their proper cultural context, the language of comedy is universal, and the very R-rated KLOWN is one of the year's funniest films.

THE HANGOVER director Todd Phillips and EASTBOUND AND DOWN's Danny McBride are currently in the writing stages of a US remake of KLOWN.  Don't do it.  Just stop.  Please.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: MEETING EVIL (2012), WANDERLUST (2012)

(US - 2012)

Samuel L. Jackson had two movies open on May 4 of this year.  One was THE AVENGERS, which had a $207 million opening weekend.  The other was the absurd MEETING EVIL, which didn't fare quite as well.  One of the most ludicrous thrillers of the year, MEETING EVIL opened on one (yes, one) screen in the US (in addition to VOD), where it grossed $525 to land in 131st place for the weekend. Based on a novel by Thomas Berger, MEETING EVIL finds John (Luke Wilson) having a very bad day:  he loses his job, he comes home to find a foreclosure notice on the front door, and he's fighting with his wife (Leslie Bibb).  Then he helps a stranger whose car stalled in front of his house.  The stranger is Richie (Jackson), a surly, foul-mouthed, fedora-wearing madman who parks in handicapped spaces and makes John an unwitting accomplice on an afternoon killing spree in town.  For a while, director/screenwriter Chris Fisher (somehow still employable after S. DARKO), seems to be aiming for the "Richie is a figment of John's imagination and John's really doing all the killing" twist, and honestly, as predictable and played-out as that is, it would've at least been something cohesive and with a purpose.  Berger's novel has to do a better job of making its points than Fisher's script and direction do.  There's a vaguely supernatural vibe to a lot of what's going on (what's with the little girl and the dog seemingly keeping a vigil outside John's house?), but it wraps up with a thoroughly generic explanation that's a big buildup to very little and doesn't even bother trying to tie up its loose ends.  Fisher also haplessly attempts to work in some topical commentary with detective Tracie Thoms (DEATH PROOF) saying that "Rich people actin' all crazy lately...they ain't never been broke before," but it seems forced and phony.  And worst of all, he can't seem to commit to what, or even who, the villain really is.  The best scenes involve the sometimes witty repartee between Thoms and lead detective Muse Watson, going full-on Kris Kristofferson with the weary, chain-smoking, and gravelly-voiced act.  Those two characters might've been more interesting in their own movie.  Wilson is pretty bland, and even Jackson's signature self-righteous, chip-on-the-shoulder act is starting to feel a little shopworn. (R, 89 mins)

(US - 2012)

WANDERLUST disappeared from theaters pretty quickly but it's already developed a cult following, which is usually the case with anything from the crew behind THE STATE, RENO 911, and PARTY DOWN (plus STELLA, WAINY DAYS, and CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL, in addition to the films THE TEN and ROLE MODELS)  Directed by David Wain and co-written by Wain and Ken Marino, WANDERLUST is a lot funnier than the trailers made it look, sort-of an edgier, recession-era LOST IN AMERICA with ambitious New Yorkers George (Paul Rudd) and Linda Gergenblatt (Jennifer Aniston) falling in with Elysium, a hippie commune (or, as the residents call it, an "intentional community") in the outskirts of Atlanta.  George loses his job and HBO rejects Linda's documentary on penguins with testicular cancer, so they head to Atlanta, where George has a menial job doing data entry for his obnoxious, port-o-potty-magnate brother Rick (Marino), but get sidetracked at the commune, mistaking it for a bed & breakfast.  Elysium was founded by the now-senile Carvin (Alan Alda), but now run by the charismatic Seth (Justin Theroux), who doesn't understand the NYC world with its "Zenith televisions and Walkmans and laserdiscs and answering machines."  The essential plot is George and Linda figuring out what they want to do with their lives, but WANDERLUST gets a lot of mileage out of a terrific ensemble cast of genuinely funny people, all of whom get big moments in the spotlight (perhaps too many for Joe Lo Truglio, who spends about 95% of his screen time completely naked as the resident nudist).  From Rudd and Aniston on down to the smallest roles (a dirty-talking Linda Lavin kills in two brief scenes as a real estate agent), almost every scene has some inspired bit of lunacy taking place (an improv bit with Rudd psyching himself up for a night of free love with Malin Akerman goes on almost agonizingly long, but Wain and Marino make it worth it with a huge, one-line payoff by Kathryn Hahn in the next scene).  Also with Lauren Ambrose, Kerry Kenney-Silver, Jordan Peele, Michaela Watkins (stealing multiple scenes as Marino's drunk, pill-addled wife), Zandy Hartig, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and possibly the funniest cameo of 2012.  Judd Apatow produced, but wisely left Wain and Marino to do their thing.  Indeed, WANDERLUST is perhaps the only Apatow production that doesn't feel like one, and not just because it isn't pointlessly stretched past the two-hour mark. (R, 98 mins;  the Blu-ray contains, as a bonus feature, a second version of the film, running around 80 minutes, comprised of alternate takes with different jokes and dialogue)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer of 1982: E.T. Dethroned (July 23, 1982)

It's easy to forget these days just how huge a star Burt Reynolds was in his prime, but perhaps the biggest testament to his popularity is that he's the one who finally, if only for a week, ended E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL's reign at the top of the box office in the summer of 1982.  And it wasn't just any Burt Reynolds movie. It wasn't a car chase comedy and it wasn't a cop thriller.  It was a Burt Reynolds musical: the big-screen version of the Broadway smash THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS.

Musicals weren't exactly a dominant genre in 1982 (and E.T. would reclaim the top spot a week later), and Reynolds even tried one once before--with disastrous results--in 1975's infamous bomb AT LONG LAST LOVE.  But the raunchy Broadway production was so popular, and he had a more than capable co-star in Dolly Parton, that, along with ANNIE, it proved to be one of the few successful musicals of its era.  And it was the last time for a long while that Reynolds tried something different.  As far back as 1972's DELIVERANCE, Reynolds showed he had the chops to be a serious actor who was always working (starring in four major films in 1975 alone) and always willing to stretch.  Even in misfires like 1975's HUSTLE, Reynolds rose above the material.  But then he had his biggest hit yet with 1977's SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, and he and director/buddy Hal Needham found a formula and they just stuck with it.  For the next several years, Reynolds was the biggest movie star in the world, and one of the busiest, with SMOKEY and SEMI-TOUGH (both 1977), directing and starring in the dark suicide comedy THE END (1978), reuniting with Needham for HOOPER (1978), SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II (1980), and THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981), plus the popular love story STARTING OVER (1979), the heist comedy ROUGH CUT (1980), PATERNITY (1981), and later in 1982, teaming up with Goldie Hawn in the romantic comedy BEST FRIENDS.  Reynolds was averaging three movies a year for several years, and given the longer theatrical runs in those days, there was hardly a time when a Burt Reynolds release wasn't in theaters.  The guy was everywhere.  He was huge and everybody loved him.  Burt Reynolds was the man.

But at some point, Reynolds' fans started to turn on him.  The movies kept coming, but people stopped going.  It's possible this turn can be traced back to 1981's SHARKY'S MACHINE, which he also directed.  A dark, melancholy modern film noir about Atlanta vice cops taking down a drug kingpin and one (Reynolds) falling in love with a high-class hooker (Rachel Ward), SHARKY'S MACHINE is, in some ways, a more focused, fully-realized version of HUSTLE, but it was expertly directed (with a legendary Dar Robinson stunt fall in the climax) and featured Reynolds' best performance since DELIVERANCE.  But critics weren't buying it and while it did OK in theaters, it wasn't the Burt that people wanted.  By Christmas 1981, people wanted the funny Burt.  They wanted car chases and wisecracks and the signature Burt laugh.  Reynolds didn't laugh much in SHARKY'S MACHINE, and his fans didn't want to see him as a lonely, sad-sack cop pining for a prostitute who's under the thumb of a sleazy crime lord (Vittorio Gassman).  Reynolds has only directed a handful of films, but as a filmmaker, SHARKY'S MACHINE is his masterpiece.  It's a great film that's only gotten better with age and in a perfect world, it would've done for him what UNFORGIVEN did for Clint Eastwood and established him as a serious artist.  By the time SHARKY'S MACHINE hit theaters, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS was already in the can, but after that, Reynolds just started coasting.  He gave his fans what they wanted to the point where they didn't want it, or him, anymore.  In retrospect, it almost seems like his heart was broken after the cold response SHARKY'S MACHINE got.  Even its own studio seems to have forgotten about it:  Warner released it in a now out-of-print, VHS quality fullscreen DVD in the early days of the format.  There's been talk of a Warner Archive upgrade, but thus far, it hasn't happened.  At 76, Reynolds is still with us and in good health.  It's a mystery why there hasn't been a SHARKY'S MACHINE special edition with a Reynolds commentary.  Maybe they're not interested.  Maybe he doesn't want to talk about it.

Starting in 1983, Reynolds' credits just become ghastly:  nobody went to see Blake Edwards' THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN.  STROKER ACE (1983) and CANNONBALL RUN II (1984) are generally regarded as the two worst films from his heyday.  His seemingly can't-miss pairing with Clint Eastwood on 1984's CITY HEAT was a major disappointment for both actors, and a nightmare for Reynolds after a stunt gone wrong (Reynolds was hit in the face with a real chair instead of a breakaway prop one) resulted in his jaw being shattered, and a liquid diet caused an alarming drop in weight, which then led to AIDS rumors in tabloids and throughout Hollywood.  He directed and starred in 1985's box office dud STICK, which was shot before CITY HEAT, and as a result of his jaw injury and subsequent painkiller addiction, Reynolds was offscreen until 1987's troubled HEAT (which went through three directors, including one who got into an on-set altercation with Reynolds), but by then, his audience moved on.  In four years, he went from the biggest movie star in the world to has-been punchline.  HEAT bombed, as did MALONE later that year, and RENT-A-COP and SWITCHING CHANNELS (both 1988) and PHYSICAL EVIDENCE (1989).  1989's BREAKING IN was a low-budget indie that got Reynolds his best reviews in years, and he had a small-screen comeback with TV series like B.L. STRYKER and the popular EVENING SHADE.  Bankruptcy and a highly-publicized divorce from Loni Anderson constantly kept him in the tabloids.  Approaching 60, Reynolds slowly mounted a comeback as a character actor and got an Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance as porn filmmaker Jack Horner in 1997's BOOGIE NIGHTS.  A few decent roles came after that, but it still didn't lead to the career rebirth one would expect, or that Reynolds was likely anticipating.  Other than occasional TV guest spots on BURN NOTICE and ARCHER, he usually only appears in straight-to-DVD garbage, including an obligatory appearance in an Uwe Boll film. 

But in his day, he was a movie star in the truest sense of the word, and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS finds him at a time when he was still bringing his A-game.  Parton and director Colin Higgins were reuniting after their 1980 smash 9 TO 5, and longtime Reynolds pal Charles Durning got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the Governor.  Reynolds' buddies Dom DeLuise and Jim Nabors also co-starred.  THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS grossed just under $70 million, making it the ninth highest-grossing film of 1982 and the most popular movie musical of the decade.

George Roy Hill's THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, based on the 1978 John Irving novel, also opened this weekend.  Irving's book was considered unfilmable by some, but Hill had shown an ability to meet that challenge before with his 1972 film version of Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.  Hill had several classics to his name--1969's BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, 1973's Best Picture Oscar winner THE STING, and the 1977 hockey comedy SLAP SHOT--and was working from a script by Steve Tesich, who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for 1979's BREAKING AWAY.  GARP was an important film for Robin Williams, in just his second starring film role after 1980's POPEYE and the TV series MORK & MINDY, which had wrapped up its fourth and final season earlier in the year.  Williams had many serious moments in this comedy-drama, but critics and audiences didn't seem quite ready to consider him anything but the wacky comedian they saw on TV, and much of GARP's acclaim went to two of Williams' co-stars:  John Lithgow as transsexual ex-football star Roberta Muldoon, and veteran stage actress Glenn Close, making her big-screen debut as Garp's mother.  Both Lithgow and Close received Supporting Oscar nominations for their work in GARP.  Close immediately proved to be the real deal, earning Oscar nominations for her first three films, and by 1989, she'd made eight films and received Oscar nominations for five of them.

Williams' gained his earliest notoriety when his Mork was a guest character on HAPPY DAYS, which led to the spinoff MORK & MINDY.  Another HAPPY DAYS cast member had a film opening this weekend with Scott Baio starring in the comedy ZAPPED.  Baio joined HAPPY DAYS in 1977 and had developed a following as Fonzie's cousin Chachi Arcola, introduced as a love interest for a maturing Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran).  Joanie and Chachi's romance gave ABC the idea to give Moran and Baio their own show with JOANIE LOVES CHACHI, which was yanked after one season and the two actors returned to HAPPY DAYS until the show ended in 1984.  While Moran tried to get a big-screen career going with the Roger Corman-produced GALAXY OF TERROR (1981), ZAPPED teamed Baio with fellow ABC series stars Willie Aames (EIGHT IS ENOUGH) and Heather Thomas (THE FALL GUY).  Baio plays a science nerd who acquires telekinetic powers, leading to much wackiness and topless young women, which made ZAPPED a video store and cable TV favorite for the rest of the decade.  It also starred Felice Schachter (one of the original girls on the first season of THE FACTS OF LIFE), Merritt Butrick (STAR TREK II and soon to be on TV's SQUARE PEGS), cult-movie regular Irwin Keyes, veteran TV actress Sue Ann Langdon, all-purpose nerd Eddie Deezen, LaWanda "SANFORD & SON's Aunt Esther" Page, and the great Scatman Crothers.  ZAPPED led to the 1990 sequel ZAPPED AGAIN, with only Langdon returning from the 1982 film.  Baio and Aames would become friends and take their ZAPPED magic to the small-screen for the long-running CHARLES IN CHARGE.

Also in theaters was the great John Frankenheimer's action thriller THE CHALLENGE, which featured the badass teaming of Scott Glenn and Toshiro Mifune, paired up to take on a bunch of Japanese bad guys after a rare sword.  Co-written by John Sayles, THE CHALLENGE bombed in theaters and was made at a time when Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE TRAIN, SECONDS) was in a serious career slump and his battle with alcoholism took him to a personal low point.  Frankenheimer went into rehab after finishing THE CHALLENGE and slowly began to rebuild his stellar career, which was back in solid standing when he died in 2002.  THE CHALLENGE is hardly Frankenheimer's finest hour, but it's fast-moving and undeniably entertaining, and like ZAPPED, became a constant fixture on cable throughout the 1980s.  Glenn and the incredible Mifune make a great team, as evidenced in this YouTube clip of all of their CHALLENGE kills.

TOP 10 FILMS FOR THE WEEKEND OF JULY 23, 1982 (from www.boxofficemojo.com)

5.   RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (re-release)
7.   TRON

Friday, July 20, 2012

In Theaters: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Christopher Nolan.  Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan.  Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard,  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine, Tom Conti, Aiden Gillen, Nestor Carbonell, Daniel Sunjata, Cillian Murphy, William Devane, Juno Temple, Ben Mendelsohn, Tomas Arana, Reggie Lee, Brent Briscoe, Brett Cullen, Ronnie Gene Blevins.  (PG-13, 165 mins)

Personal note:  my thoughts go out to the victims of the Aurora, CO tragedy and their families and friends.

Christopher Nolan continues to cement his place as the most visionary commercial filmmaker of his generation with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the conclusion of the trilogy that began with BATMAN BEGINS (2005) and THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).  Both of those films functioned fine as stand-alone works, but the allusions and callbacks that RISES makes to its predecessors show fully-realized arcs and themes that only become apparent after seeing the third film.  What Nolan ends up with is an epic trilogy of staggering scope and ambitious vision, and one that rivals STAR WARS in terms of cultural and cinematic significance.  Is THE DARK KNIGHT RISES better than THE DARK KNIGHT?  I don't know.  It lacks a villain as colorful as Heath Ledger's Joker, but that's an impossible act to top, so RISES wisely doesn't even try.  But THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a more ambitious film, and a much deeper one, with more topical themes of politics and class warfare in addition to eternal ones like good and evil.  It's also a film about redemption, and not just for the tarnished image of Batman throughout Gotham City. It enriches the earlier films (especially BATMAN BEGINS), while existing on its own as both profound and incredibly entertaining, though dark, bleak, and deadly serious, with not much in the way of even the incidental bits of humor in the first two films.  Comparisons with THE AVENGERS are inevitable.  THE AVENGERS doesn't have the level of drama that RISES has and that wasn't its purpose.  But both films stand as sterling examples of how to do a smart summer crowd-pleaser without pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne

Tom Hardy as Bane
Picking up eight years after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, the Dent Act has eliminated crime in Gotham City and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now a hobbling recluse holed up in Wayne Manor.  Batman took the blame for the death of, and the crimes committed by White Knight prosecutor Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart in THE DARK KNIGHT) and disappeared a fugitive.  Gotham is prosperous and living large but the evil is always bubbling just under the surface.  It's in the form of the hulking Bane (Tom Hardy), previously kicked out of the League of Shadows by Ra's Al Ghul (played by Liam Neeson in BATMAN BEGINS), and now a gas-mask wearing symbol of underclass rage who has commandeered the sewer system with his legion of followers and wants to take the city back from the politicians and the affluent who, as sultry cat burglar (never referred to as "Catwoman") Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, who's terrific) tells Wayne, "have so much and give nothing in return."

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle
That's only the set-up of the large-scale story.  Bane has a devious plan to take over Gotham;  Wayne deals with the mental and physical pain of being his alter ego (he's suffered some muscle, bone, and even a bit of brain damage from his exploits); and Wayne Enterprises ends up in the hands of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who has a clean-energy agenda for the company and is a love interest for Wayne.  Wayne Enterprises chief and genius inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and earnest young detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) also figure in significant ways, but really, the surprising emotional heart of the film is Alfred (Michael Caine).  Always there to help and provide sage advice and wisdom to Master Wayne, the fatherly Alfred has always kept the hero grounded, but they have terse words here that neither can take back, and Caine in particular is just heartbreaking, especially when he's tearfully recalling "someone I've cared for since the first moments I heard his cries echoing through the halls of this house."  Throughout his 50-year career, Caine has made great films better and some terrible films bearable, and he's an absolute joy to watch here.  It's a great character for a great actor, and Caine does a beautiful job even if he's absent for a good chunk of the film.

Michael Caine as Alfred

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Marian Cotillard as Miranda Tate

Hardy makes a physically imposing villain, even if most of his face is obscured for about 98% of his screen time and his voice post-synched and obviously tweaked (his dialogue has clearly been re-recorded since the first trailer some months back, when it was impossible to understand anything he was saying--now he sounds like a strange hybrid of Robert Shaw and Dr. Evil).  Bane and his followers want to take the city back from the fatcats, and as played in the film, they're very much the manifestation of how right-wing talk radio imagined the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Those aren't the only political jabs the film takes--notice how Gotham's mayor (a returning Nestor Carbonell, who seems to have eased up on the guyliner just a bit) tells ambitious Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine) that Gordon's on his way out.  "The man's a hero," Foley says.  The Mayor: "Yeah, but that was wartime.  This is peacetime."  No matter how effectively he does his job, Gordon is a reminder of past problems, and just like Bane's people underground, there's no place for him in the perfect-on-the-surface Gotham.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES methodically builds towards its epic climax, with numerous twists and revelations, some expected, some not.  I'm sure people can nitpick (yeah, I know...cops trapped underground for three months and none of them have beards), but Nolan has capped off this mammoth saga in grand fashion.  Is it dark, bleak, and unpleasant?  Yeah, but popular culture reflects its time and environment, and these are dark and unsure times.  I'm sure these will age just fine over the years, but no other franchise has succeeded in mirroring its era as effectively as Nolan has done with this trilogy.  Individually, they're great films.  Collectively, the story is a masterpiece.

Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan

Thursday, July 19, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: HERE (2012) and THE FLOWERS OF WAR (2011)

(US/Germany/The Netherlands/France/Armenia/Japan - 2012)

Documentary filmmaker and music video director Braden King makes his first scripted feature with HERE, which is equal parts travelogue, introspective road film, and GOOGLE EARTH: THE MOVIE.  Filmed in 2009, HERE is very deliberately paced (probably too slow for some), but quite captivating, with some breathtaking cinematography as cartographer Will Shepard (Ben Foster) travels throughout Armenia on a contractual job marking coordinates and putting together a map for a satellite mapping company.  He befriends Armenian photographer Gadarene (Lubna Azabal of INCENDIES), who's just back from an extended stay in Paris, much to the disapproval of her traditional family.  Will decides to take Gadarene along as her photographic skills could prove helpful.  King co-wrote the script with Dani Valent, and it often resorts to facile metaphors (maps, roads, journeys, finding yourself, etc), but is also a powerful film about culture, tradition, and communication.  And, of course, existential pondering (Will, explaining his passion for maps: "I wanted to see how far I could go before getting lost").  We don't learn much about Will--only that he's a loner and letting someone tag along, much less reluctantly allowing himself to fall in love, is out of character. Only at the very end do we see the effect that Will's time with Gadarene and her family and friends and in her country has had on him.  There's a scene where Will is left alone with the husband (Hovak Galoyan) of one of Gadarene's friends, and the two don't understand one another's language, but bond over shots of strong Armenian vodka and each teaches the other how to say "friend" in their language.  It's a wonderful scene that's beautifully and naturally played by Foster and Galoyan.  There's lots of little moments like that throughout HERE.  With its somewhat Ry Cooder-ish minimalist score and long scenes of driving or hiking through desolate areas, King establishes a vintage Wim Wenders mood with HERE.  Some will find this boring and pretentious and admittedly, one has to be in the mood for it, but HERE is a quietly powerful and richly rewarding film. (Unrated, 126 mins)

(China - 2011)

Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has amassed a long list of revered films over his illustrious career: JU DOU (1990), RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991), TO LIVE (1994), SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995), HERO (2002), HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004), CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006), and a few others.  I guess every great auteur has an off-day, but Zhang shits the bed with THE FLOWERS OF WAR, a tone-deaf and appallingly misguided drama set during the horrific Rape of Nanking in 1937.  Budgeted at the US equivalent of $95 million, it currently ranks as China's most expensive film, and was the country's top-grossing release of 2011.  It didn't fare as well in the US, topping out at $300,000 on just 30 screens, generating almost no interest despite the presence of Christian Bale.  Based on Yan Geling's novel 13 Flowers of Nanjing, THE FLOWERS OF WAR concerns a group of teenage girls in a convent who take refuge in a Catholic church during the attack by Japanese soldiers.  They're joined by John Miller (Bale), an American mortician/drunkard/con man who's there to bury the Catholic priest who recently died.  They're soon joined by several prostitutes, and Miller finds himself in the position of pretending to be the new priest in order to protect everyone, as the Japanese soldiers won't attack the sacred ground of a church.  What could've been a compelling story is bogged down by an overstylized look that shouldn't even be used for a serious period drama, even if it is a fictional story taking place during a real event.  Presenting the atrocities in a brutal and accurate fashion is appropriate, but Zhang inexplicably opts for slo-mo bullet blasts and garish, tasteless CGI splatter, with a couple instances of arterial spray that seem like he's paying homage to RIKI-OH.  The film was shot entirely on sets, including the exteriors, so many of the buildings seen in "exterior" shots look completely cartoonish and have an almost graphic novel artifice that's more fitting for SUCKER PUNCH than an ostensibly sincere film set during one of the most painful periods in China's history.  The stunt casting of Bale is clearly a marketing decision, and he's one of the film's biggest problems.  Bale is a great actor, and for one so renowned for disappearing into his characters, he never stops being "Christian Bale" here, and never seems like he's in the same film as his co-stars.  It's his worst performance since HARSH TIMES, but THE FLOWERS OF WAR isn't his fault. Overlong, overwrought, and utterly pointless considering the much better fact-based films that deal with the Nanking Massacre (THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI, CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH), THE FLOWERS OF WAR is a shocking misfire for a filmmaker of Zhang's caliber. (R, 142 mins)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: GET THE GRINGO (2012) and INTRUDERS (2012)

(US - 2012)

By this point, it's impossible to watch a new Mel Gibson film without addressing the elephant in the room that is Mel Gibson.  The last several years have been a public relations nightmare for the actor and Oscar-winning director with alcoholism, anti-Semitic and racist comments, domestic violence, and other instances of anger management issues.  Whether he's just really an inherently nasty person or, as he's said on several occasions, manic depressive, Gibson's offscreen problems have taken a toll on his career.  Hollywood and movie audiences forgave him once, when 2010's EDGE OF DARKNESS, his first time in front of the camera since 2003's little-seen THE SINGING DETECTIVE, became a hit.  Gibson showed that yes, he made some mistakes, but he owned up to them, said all the right things, and took his lumps, and as a result, people indeed still liked him and wanted to see his movies.  But then uglier stuff just kept coming out, and despite a passionate defense from co-star/director Jodie Foster, nobody wanted anything to do with 2011's THE BEAVER, which sounded terrible even without Gibson's personal life becoming a tabloid train wreck (he suffers a nervous breakdown and finds he can only express himself through a beaver hand-puppet).  When THE BEAVER bombed ($21 million budget, grossed less than $1 million), Gibson's already-completed south-of-the-border comedy/thriller GET THE GRINGO (originally titled HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION) could only manage an undignified straight-to-DirecTV release in the spring of 2012 after two years on the shelf.  Gibson tried to put a positive spin on things by saying it's just representative of the changing ways of movie distribution, but let's get real:  nobody wanted to handle GET THE GRINGO because the idea of Mel Gibson and the baggage that accompanies him is just a touchy subject.  Now, whether he's mentally ill or has a drinking problem or is just a colossal prick is up for debate.  His offscreen comments and a lot of his behavior are reprehensible, but his onscreen presence is such that he somehow makes it possible to put all of that aside when he's doing what he does best.  Throughout the history of the movies, with rare exception, audiences have proven to be remarkably forgiving when it comes to entertainers who screw up.  I say this not to defend or excuse Mel Gibson's transgressions, but to just put it in perspective: the movies aren't reality and the actors aren't the people they play. Going back to the silent era, famous people have always screwed up and the gossip rags have always reported it, but today's technological advances, the immediacy of the internet, and the 24-hour news culture have just made it much easier for us to rubberneck in real time when a celebrity implodes.   It's very possible that our big-screen heroes have always been assholes.

Which brings us to GET THE GRINGO, which is actually pretty good.  Gibson does the "cold-blooded anti-hero" thing as well as anyone, and here he's the nameless "driver," thrown into a shanty-town of a prison in Tijuana after crashing his getaway car filled with $2 million through a US/Mexican border wall.  Once in the prison (which he dubs "the world's shittiest mall"), he gets in the middle of a war between a Mexican crime family led by Javi (Daniel Jiminez Cacho) and powerful San Diego mobster Frank (Peter Stormare).  Driver stole Frank's money, and now Javi's crew has stolen it from the corrupt Mexican border cops who kept it for themselves.  Driver befriends ten-year-old Kid (Kevin Hernandez), who's grown up in the prison since his parents were both arrested for drug trafficking.  Kid is in danger since he's the only match in the prison for an acceptable liver transplant for the deathly ill Javi, who's already got Kid's dead dad's failing liver inside of him.  Driver concocts a complex scheme to get Kid and his innocent mother (Dolores Heredia) out of Tijuana while at the same time, playing Javi and Frank against each other.  GET THE GRINGO is a funny, violent, and thoroughly scuzzy film that shows that however chaotic his personal life may be, Gibson still has unquestionable star power.  Driver isn't too far off from Gibson's tough, smartass Porter in PAYBACK, mixed with the single-minded sense of vengeful rage that his EDGE OF DARKNESS character possessed.  Gibson co-wrote the script with longtime assistants Adrian Grunberg (who also directed) and Stacy Perskie, and it plays to his strengths.  Also with the great character actors Bob Gunton and Patrick Bauchau in small roles, Peter Geraty as a corrupt US Embassy official in Tijuana, a couple of masked Mexican wrestlers, and a very Peckinpah-styled shootout dampened only by some dubious-looking CGI splatter (the CGI explosions in this film also have a very SyFy phoniness to them that's a bit distracting).  (R, 96 mins)

(Spain - 2012)

This sluggishly-paced horror outing is a disappointment from Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who made a name for himself with genre fans with his cult hit INTACTO (2002) and the underrated 28 WEEKS LATER (2007).  Children have always been a focal point of the Spanish horror genre, but too much of INTRUDERS feels like a jumble of ideas cribbed from Guillermo del Toro and run through an M. Night Shyamalan filter.  In London and Madrid, two children--British Mia (Ella Purnell) and Spanish Juan (Izan Corchero) are being victimized nightly by a robed, faceless, closet-dwelling boogeyman called Hollowface, a supernatural being trying to steal the faces of children to assemble one for himself.  Mia's father John (Clive Owen) and Juan's mother Luisa (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) are also attacked by Hollowface.  When the attacks continue--and Mia's mother Susanna (Carice van Houten) never manages to see Hollowface--John calls the police and installs a security system, while single mother Luisa takes Juan to a priest (Daniel Bruhl) who thinks the boy might be possessed.  Things get complicated after one Hollowface incident where security footage shows John being attacked by nothing, prompting police to brand him the real problem, especially when a psychologist (Kerry Fox) tells John that he and Mia, who loses her ability to speak after Hollowface runs his hand over her mouth, are experiencing folie a deux, where two individuals with a close bond share the same delusional psychosis.  Eventually, there's an inevitable twist and an explanation that lands with a total thud as the film goes from supernatural chiller to pure Shyamalanian horseshit.  There's some initially interesting ideas and the performances are decent, but it just gets slower and sillier as it proceeds, and the CGI is terrible.  Millennium acquired this for the US and put it on just 33 screens for a $64,000 gross.  Fresnadillo showed much promise with his first two feature films, but he stumbles with the tired INTRUDERS.  He's currently attached to direct the HIGHLANDER remake, a film eagerly awaited by absolutely no one.  (R, 100 mins)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray, Special "Dumped By Their Distributor" Edition: MARGARET (2011) and BEING FLYNN (2012)

(US - 2011)

Kenneth Lonergan's follow-up to his acclaimed 2000 breakthrough YOU CAN COUNT ON ME wasn't supposed to take a Kubrickian amount of time to get released.  Filmed in 2005, MARGARET trickled onto 14 screens in the fall of 2011 after a nightmarish six-year post-production that saw two of the film's producers pass away (Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack both died in 2008), and multiple lawsuits going back and forth between Fox Searchlight, producers, and Lonergan.  When the film missed its projected release dates in 2006 and 2007, word spread that Lonergan couldn't finish the film.  Lonergan's eventual cut ran a bit over three hours and the studio refused to release it, demanding that it be cut to no more than 150 minutes, and pulling the plug on Lonergan's funding (the director reportedly borrowed money from co-star Matthew Broderick to continue editing his cut). Finally, Lonergan's friend Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker assembled the theatrically-released version, which comes in at exactly 150 minutes and was reluctantly approved by Lonergan.

So, was MARGARET worth the wait?  Not really, though some declared it a masterpiece.  It's too ambitious and grandiose to just disregard, but it's overwritten, melodramatic, cumbersome, and maddeningly self-indulgent, no matter how remarkable it is at times.  In an unforgettable scene, NYC teenager Lisa (Anna Paquin) witnesses a horrifying accident where a bus runs a red light and drives over a pedestrian (Allison Janney), who has both legs torn off and bleeds to death before the ambulance arrives.  But the thing is, Lisa tells the police that the light was green and doesn't tell them that she was distracting the driver (Mark Ruffalo) by banging on the door as the bus was moving because she wanted to know where he bought his cowboy hat.  Lisa's guilt over this tragedy is too much for her to handle or properly articulate, so she starts acting out.  First by breaking the heart of a classmate (John Gallagher, Jr) and immediately sleeping with a total tool (Kieran Culkin).  She also gets into constant arguments with her stage actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan's wife), and joins forces with the dead woman's best friend (Jeannie Berlin) to launch a haphazardly-conceived civil suit against the city and get Ruffalo fired.  Oh, but there's more.  Much more, with numerous characters drifting in and out of the story with little or no purpose.  Jean Reno plays a cultured Colombian widower romancing Lisa's mother, and he has absolutely nothing to do other than be a laborious set-up for a minor point to be made of one of Lonergan's numerous aimless tangents (believe it or not, the film works in everything from 9/11 to the Israeli-Palestine conflict to a cameo by opera star Renee Fleming as herself).  Broderick plays a square English teacher who exists in the film only to read the poem from which the film gets its title, and to oddly sip orange juice through a tiny straw while losing patience with an argumentative student during a Shakespeare lecture.  Matt Damon plays a math teacher with whom Lisa constantly flirts.  A very young-looking, pre-JUNO Olivia Thirlby plays a classmate of Lisa's, and Lonergan himself plays Lisa's father.  More than anything, MARGARET looks like an unfinished film that just got away from its maker, who obviously felt that everything he shot was too precious to cut.  Even in the Scorsese-supervised edit, scenes either go on past the point of necessity or they're cut too soon.  In the scene where Paquin and Berlin have lunch with lawyer Michael Ealy, watch how Ealy looks up from the table and has a shocked expression on his face--he's about to open his mouth, and...cut to next scene.  It seems like something potentially important was about to happen.  It's a very long, arduous haul for a film whose point seems to be "teenagers are overly dramatic about some things," though Berlin (who's quite good) does get a fantastic zinger when she yells at Paquin, "We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!"  Lonergan ends this rambling yet hypnotic mess of a film with a very powerful scene, but it still doesn't change the fact that Lisa spent the last two hours behaving like a sociopath.  The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack, currently sold exclusively by Amazon.com, gives you the choice of the 150-minute theatrical version and Lonergan's 186-minute director's cut.  As of now, Netflix isn't carrying either version, but the theatrical cut is available on some VOD services.  (R, 150 mins, theatrical version)

(US - 2012)

Focus Features didn't really know how to sell BEING FLYNN.  Trailers made it look lighthearted and vaguely comedic, when in fact, it's often devastating and sad.  Perhaps they would've been better off sticking with the title of Nick Flynn's memoir on which the film is based: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.  The film ultimately made it to 88 screens at its widest release, grossing around $540,000.  With two narrators, one of whom is at best unreliable and neither of whom are particularly appealing, BEING FLYNN is a tough sell and a difficult film to warm to, but it's got a pair of outstanding performances and is emotional in a very real way, without being cloying and manipulative or caving to maudlin sentimentality.  Nick (Paul Dano) is an aimless and jobless would-be writer in NYC.  He gets a job at a homeless shelter and reluctantly renews his relationship with his long-absent ex-con father Jonathan (Robert De Niro), an alcoholic, delusional, irresponsible, self-absorbed, racist, homophobic, and possibly schizophrenic part-time cab driver and full-time bullshit artist who's convinced he's a great American literary talent.  After being evicted for assaulting a neighbor and losing his cab after a DUI, Jonathan begins staying at the homeless shelter and, as is his way, eventually gets himself kicked out.  Nick, meanwhile, still has unresolved issues over the suicide of his mother (Julianne Moore in flashbacks), who raised him alone and did her best while working two jobs, and starts falling deep into hard drugs.  De Niro and Dano are both superb in difficult roles where neither of them are particulary likable, and screenwriter/director Paul Weitz (atoning, along with De Niro, for the sins of LITTLE FOCKERS) does an excellent job with structuring the film to play like a visual memoir via alternating narration and interesting editing and directorial choices.  It's a fairly standard story when stripped to its basics (father and son coming to terms with the past and the flawed, damaged men they've both become), but it strives to be something more, and for the most part, it succeeds.  And it's terrific unseen De Niro performance to go along with STONE, another film that was completely mishandled by its distributor.  Also with Olivia Thirlby, Lili Taylor, Victor Rasuk, and Wes Studi.  (R, 102 mins)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Summer of 1982: (July 16, 1982)

July 16, 1982 was one of those packed weekends where there's so many new movies released that some are bound for box-office failure, especially with the unstoppable juggernaut that was E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.  Capitalizing on Steven Spielberg's huge success with E.T., Paramount chose this weekend to re-release 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and it ended up being the top "new" offering of the weekend, adding to the director's incredible success over the summer of 1982.

The medical soap opera spoof YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE opened as well, to generally decent if unenthusiastic reviews, but became a surprise sleeper hit, grossing around $30 million.  A stab at AIRPLANE!-style humor in the ZAZ mold, YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE was directed by TV icon Garry Marshall (HAPPY DAYS, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY) and starred familiar TV faces like Michael McKean, Ed Begley, Jr., and Ted McGinley, as well as perpetual Marshall regular Hector Elizondo, BLADE RUNNER's Sean Young, Harry Dean Stanton, Patrick Macnee, George Furth, Taylor Negron, and Dabney Coleman.  It was also an early hit for future mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who would crack the big time a year later when he partnered with Don Simpson to produce FLASHDANCE.

Woody Allen's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY is an homage to Ingmar Bergman's SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, set in the early 1900s at a weekend cottage getaway for three couples (Allen and Mary Steenburgen, Jose Ferrer and Mia Farrow, Tony Roberts and Julie Hagerty).  Being that this is a Woody Allen film, neuroses and comic bedhopping occur, or as much as the PG rating will allow.  Far from Allen's best film, but nor is it his worst, the occasionally-amusing MIDSUMMER falls pretty squarely in the pleasant-but-forgettable camp.  Allen did this between the Fellini-inspired STARDUST MEMORIES and the experimental ZELIG, and was probably more concerned with continuing to establish his auteur bona fides than making people laugh.

SIX PACK was the big screen debut of beloved country music star and future botched cosmetic surgery case study Kenny Rogers, who had recently turned his hit song "The Gambler" into a popular and oddly-titled made-for-TV western KENNY ROGERS AS THE GAMBLER.  The idea of a family comedy with Rogers as race car driver Brewster Baker, befriending and taking care of a ragtag group of six orphaned miscreants seemed like a great idea, and SIX PACK was a modest success in theaters.  It hovered around 10th to 12th place for several weeks, very quietly grossing $20 million, and found a bigger audience during its endless cable airings throughout the '80s.  Rogers had a likable enough screen presence, and the film does have a solid supporting turn by 17-year-old Diane Lane as the oldest of the kids (a young Anthony Michael Hall is also in it).  BUCK ROGERS' co-star Erin Gray has one of her rare big-screen leading roles, and the great character actor Barry Corbin is a crooked sheriff.  SIX PACK spawned a huge hit single for Rogers with "Love Will Turn You Around," which was far more successful than the movie, in addition to a 1983 pilot for a proposed NBC series that never happened, with a pre-MIAMI VICE Don Johnson as Brewster Baker and Leaf (later Joaquin) Phoenix as one of the Six Pack.

Lastly, the other major opening on this busy weekend was SUMMER LOVERS, directed by Randal Kleiser (GREASE).  SUMMER LOVERS wasn't a success at all, grossing only $5 million, but it enjoyed a long life on VHS and cable, where it introduced an untold number of impressionable, hormonally-overcharged boys to the concept of the menage-a-trois.  The film starred Peter Gallagher, Daryl Hannah, and CONAN THE BARBARIAN's Valerie Quennessen, and while surely not on the erotica level of, say, a Laura Gemser EMANUELLE flick, anything gets the job done when you're 11 and the possibility of nudity exists.  Gallagher and Hannah, both relative newcomers at the time, went on to long and busy careers and are still active today, while French actress Quennessen only made a few more movies before putting her career on hold for marriage and motherhood.  She was just 31 years old when she was tragically killed in a car accident in 1989.  SUMMER LOVERS also produced a pair of radio hits with Chicago's "Hard to Say I'm Sorry," and the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited," which is in the film but didn't really take off until 1984.

TOP 10 FILMS FOR THE WEEKEND OF JULY 16, 1982 (from www.boxofficemojo.com)

2.   RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (re-release)
4.   TRON
9.   ANNIE

Saturday, July 14, 2012

New on Blu-ray: OUTLAND (1981), ALTERED STATES (1980), and TWINS OF EVIL (1971)

(UK - 1981)

Conceived by writer-director Peter Hyams (CAPRICORN ONE) as an outer-space western, OUTLAND finally gets a worthwhile home video presentation on Blu-ray.  The long out-of-print DVD was one of the first issued in the format and was utterly abysmal in quality.  OUTLAND did generally well at the box office in 1981 and has always been held in high regard by genre fans, and despite a couple of dubious effects shots late in the film, it's aged very well.  Sean Connery is O'Niel, a Federal Marshal assigned to a one-year tour heading the police force on Io, the third moon of Jupiter, where Con-Am runs a very profitable titanium ore mining facility. Sheppard (Peter Boyle), Con-Am's manager on Io, is very proud of his operation's increased productivity and profitability and politely tells O'Niel to just go with the flow.  O'Niel senses something fishy when two miners have psychotic episodes resulting in their deaths.  Sheppard orders the bodies sent back to the space station off Jupiter but O'Niel manages to get a blood sample from one and with the help of curmudgeonly, hard-drinking Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), finds traces of a powerful experimental drug that allows users to stay up for days on end, thus increasing their furious work output.  The side effects, Lazarus says, are that continued use can cause complete psychotic breaks after 10 or 11 months.  Sheppard and some associates are running the drug operation into Io, and as long as productivity, profits, and bonuses are high, everyone, including O'Niel's deputy Montone (Hyams regular James B. Sikking), is content to look the other way.  When O'Niel doesn't back down, Sheppard and Con-Am execs decide to bring in three hit men from the space station to kill him, and it's here that OUTLAND turns into essentially a post-STAR WARS variation on HIGH NOON, complete with a large digital clock in a sleazy Io bar showing the countdown to the next shuttle arrival.  Like Gary Cooper's Will Kane, Connery's O'Niel is forced to face the killers alone (with a little help from Lazarus), as an entire work force of minors and even his own deputies prove unwilling to help him. 

OUTLAND is a top-notch sci-fi thriller and the miniatures and matte work still look superb and are more convincing today than most CGI.  The cast is terrific--Connery and Sternhagen make an unlikely and very likable team, and Boyle is memorably smug, telling Connery to "go home and polish your badge...you're dealing with grown-ups here."  It's a film that's fallen through the cracks over the years, but hopefully this proper HD presentation will allow it--and Hyams, a very underrated director and wonderfully snappy writer who was unstoppable in his 1974-1990 prime--to find a new audience.  Hyams provides a newly-recorded commentary that covers all elements of the production (he wanted to call it IO, but everyone kept mistaking it for 10), with a lot of interesting Connery stories (they also worked together on 1988's THE PRESIDIO).  Also with Clarke Peters (THE WIRE, TREME), Steven Berkoff, and John Ratzenberger as a freaked-out miner whose head explodes in the opening scene. (R, 109 mins)

(US - 1980)

It's a testament to just how much filmmaking, marketing, and audiences have changed over the last 30 or so years when one considers that Ken Russell's surreal, philosophical, challenging, jargon-heavy, sensory-deprivation, devolution sci-fi/horror mindfuck was not only bankrolled by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) with an unknown (William Hurt in his debut) in the lead role, but it was released in theaters on Christmas Day 1980. ALTERED STATES tells the story of psych professor Eddie Jessup's (Hurt) search for the Ultimate Truth via isolation tank and a hallucinogenic mushroom-based solution concocted by an indigenous Mexican tribe that's purported to take one back to "first soul" and be "propelled into the void."  The more time he spends in the tank with himself as the experiment, monitored by a colleague (Bob Balaban), an endocrinologist (Charles Haid), and later, his estranged wife (Blair Brown), the more Jessup's genetic makeup devolves with horrifying results.  Written by Paddy Chayefsky (NETWORK), who fought with Russell and took his professional name off the finished film (going by his real name, Sidney Aaron), ALTERED STATES is pretty deep and heady stuff, filled with stunning (though a bit dated today) imagery and visual effects and room-shaking sound (which got an Oscar nod).  As ambitious and thought-provoking film as it is, it probably ranks as one of Russell's more strangely commercial films, and the one-sheet depicting Hurt upside-down in the flotation tank immediately became an iconic image.  The film (also featuring Drew Barrymore, in her first film as well, playing one of Hurt's young daughters) instantly put Hurt on the map as an actor to watch and he'd have an Oscar within five years for 1985's KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.  Hurt is so familiar as a reliable character actor in supporting roles these days that it's easy to forget he was an A-list star in the 1980s.  The new HD transfer for the Blu-ray release is crystal clear and absolutely beautiful.  The only extra is a trailer, but at a relatively low price, this is the best ALTERED STATES has ever looked.  (R, 103 mins)

(UK - 1971)

Hammer's box office appeal may have been in decline by the early 1970s, but some of the studio's best films were being made in this period, as evidenced by John Hough's TWINS OF EVIL, just out on Blu-ray from Synapse Films.  The third in the studio's "Karnstein" trilogy (after 1970's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and 1971's LUST FOR A VAMPIRE), based on the works of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, TWINS OF EVIL has twin Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson as orphans sent to live with their puritanical, cold-hearted uncle Gustav (Peter Cushing), a local witchfinder who leads a group of religious fanatics called The Brotherhood, finding presumed witches and burning them at the stake.  One of the twins falls under the spell of Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas, who has a strange resemblance to Jimmy Fallon), a wealthy, well-connected Satanist whose activities have awakened undead vampire Mircalla (Katya Wyeth).  Written by Tudor Gates and featuring David Warbeck and Dennis Price, TWINS OF EVIL is a highly enjoyable cult horror classic that showcases elements of the newly-explicit vampire genre (Hammer was taking advantage of the increasing demand for gore and nudity) and gave Cushing an opportunity to take part in the then-trendy "witchfinder" films popularized by 1968's THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL (with Vincent Price), 1970's THE BLOODY JUDGE (with Christopher Lee), and 1970's MARK OF THE DEVIL (with Herbert Lom).  Cushing turns in one of his all-time great performances here, showing the complexities of noble intentions gone horrifically awry.  Cushing's wife died unexpectedly shortly before filming began, and he's bringing a wide range of emotions to his role here as his Gustav is ultimately both terrifying and tragic.  Synapse's Blu-ray transfer is absolutely impeccable, and it's loaded with bonus features, including the feature-length documentary THE FLESH AND THE FURY, which explores the works of Le Fanu, the "Karnstein" trilogy, and the making of TWINS OF EVIL, with appearances by genre luminaries and historians like Joe Dante, Kim Newman, Tim Lucas, Ted Newsom, David J. Skal, and Sir Christopher Frayling, in addition to TWINS co-star Thomas and director Hough.  One of 2012's best Blu-ray releases.  (Unrated, 87 mins)